AGRIBUSINES PERSPE CTI VE: Women in agriculture – a historical perspective
In 1988, a renowned professor of agricultural extension at the University of Fort Hare, Prof TJ Bembridge, wrote a paper entitled, ‘The Role of Women in Agricultural and Rural Development’. In it, he wrote: “Rural development is much more than an economic or technological process; it is equally, and at the same time, a continuing social process that entails rural transformation. An acceptance of this has led to a realisation that special attention should be paid to the role of women in the agricultural and rural development process … In fact, for the large majority of rural women, development has not meant a change for [the] better despite the fact that the participation of women in farming is vital. Indeed, overlooking this simple fact may thwart efforts to improve food production and social stability.”
women’s participation not new
Over the years, we have seen the participation of women in agriculture increasing slowly, and, as such, it has become an increasingly topical issue. With few women activists pushing and advocating for greater involvement of women in the sector from a commercial point of view, the fact is that the involvement of women in farming is not new, despite what some people may think.
In South Africa, for example, and I suppose the same applies to many other developing and less developed countries in the world, when rural men were in high demand by the mining sector, which was thriving in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, it was women who were left with the responsibility to produce crops and fend for livestock.
Men’s responsibility in crop production ended after planting, when they would return to the mines. From there, women would have to oversee the entire process until harvesting.
This clearly suggests that during these years, women were, to a greater extent, responsible not only for farming and food production, but for putting into practice many farming innovations that were introduced by the development agencies of that time. Despite Bembridge’s point, made 30 years ago, that the participation of women in farming and food production was as vital as it is today, their participation and the role they played is often not given the recognition and support it deserves.
Even in commercial farming entities, women’s roles are often overlooked and all the credit is given to men. This is despite the fact that in many cases, the farmer’s wife, although not actively involved in the day-to-day operations of the farm, takes care of the finances of the farming entity.
Passionate support for smallholders
More concerning is that even the report compiled by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization’s (FAO) High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition makes no specific reference to women’s role in food production, and the support that should be provided to them. This is despite the report expressing passionate support for smallholder farmers as one of the tools to improve food security and nutrition in poor countries.
It is estimated that in Africa, 80% of agricultural production comes from smallholders, who are mostly rural women. Women comprise the largest proportion of the workforce in the agriculture sector, but do not have access and control over land and productive resources, which is something the FAO fails to recognise in its report.
strengthening ownership rights
Lastly, although I want to avoid commenting on the decision of the Constitutional Review Committee that Section 25 of the Constitution be amended to allow for land expropriation without compensation, one cannot help but wonder if this will strengthen rural women’s land ownership rights.
Their ownership rights are currently almost non-existent, and this could ultimately also strengthen the development of strategies that recognise women as being at the epicentre of, and great contributors to, the rural and agricultural economy.